Artwashing: Social Capital & Anti-Gentrification Activism

This is the text from my presentation delivered at Kings College London on Tuesday 13th June 2017.  It discusses artwashing, social capital, socially engaged art and anti-gentrification activism.  In the talk/text, I attempt to define five forms of artwashing and suggest that 'community artwashing' is the most pernicious and deceitful.  The paper is derived and developed from elements of my PhD research.  This is the text.  Click here to see and read (using notes) the presentation with all the images.

Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard and today I’m talking about Artwashing. How art is used as a gloss for dispossession, displacement and, ultimately, social cleansing…

Artists and arts organisations have often engaged with processes of gentrification. Increasingly encouraged by the state into public-private-third sector “partnerships”, many arts organisations and artists have discovered new value in the intangible worlds of “community development” and “community engagement”. Socially engaged art has become a catch-all banner for state and corporate instrumentalism, embracing the rhetoric of inclusion, wellbeing, social impact and social capital in so doing.

I argue that artists are increasingly being instrumentalised by the state, local authorities, corporate interests and financial investors, and third sector organisations eager to promote urban renewal and narrow notions of ‘the civic’.

Regeneration.  Everyone knows what that is, right?  It makes places better.  It improves people’s lives.  Doesn’t it?  I say NO!  It is a game.  A game played by the privileged; by those in positions of power.  The regeneration game, like everything in this neoliberal hegemony, is about capital and profit.  It is also about massive human losses.

For urban geographer, Neil Smith, gentrification was a ‘dirty word’, particularly for working-class people whose lives are negated and destroyed by the process and its ‘language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance’ (1996, pp. 25-32).  Working-class areas become, in the eyes of gentrifiers, barren wildernesses devoid of anything of value or significance, barring a few ‘salvageable’ landmarks that add much needed ‘authenticity’.

Gentrification, like the ideological project of dismantling the welfare state and the privatisation of public services, reveals a constantly shifting and expanding dividing line between haves and have nots.  For Smith, this ‘gentrification frontier’ divided ‘areas of disinvestment from areas of reinvestment’ (1996, p. 187).

Yet gentrification has been redefined by many policymakers and planners.  Placemaking and artwashing are their tools.  Contested issues such as displacement and class relations are brushed away by positive terms such as ‘revitalisation’, ‘renaissance’ and ‘revival’.

But what is artwashing?  Artwashing is a simple word.  A hook.  Artwashing is, however, a complex deception.

Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions.  Artwashing is nothing short of a breach of trust.

Artwashing uses art to smooth and gloss over social cleansing and gentrification, functioning as ‘social licence’, public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities.  I argue that artwashing takes several different forms.

First, what I call ‘corporate artwashing’.

The classic example of this type of ‘artwash’ involves corporations such as BP and Shell who used artwashing as a form of PR, however, many brands now employ the arts in this way.  Artwashing, as activist Mel Evans pointed out, helps cement the corporate ‘social licence to operate’: a fundamental element for many businesses which intends to protect them from less palatable aspects of their business by persuading the public to trust them (2015, pp. 70-84).

Second, ‘developer-led artwashing’.

For example, LondoNewcastle – a luxury property developer: a profiteer of gentrification and social cleansing.  It adorns its developments with carefully commissioned street art and has its own contemporary art gallery in Whitechapel.  Art is here used to promote individuality and luxury to its clients, just like its CGI’s.

The Artworks Elephant is a pop-up boxpark on the site of what was a public space and a playground on the edge of the Heygate Estate.  Writer Dan Hancox called it a ‘shiny bauble’ to distract from the ‘social cleansing’ of the area (2014).  Shipping containers on community land circumnavigate planning processes.  Others wanted allotments, a pond, sports facilities, etc.  They got a haven for hipsters that doubles up as a sales office for global developer Lend Lease who are behind the social cleansing of the Heygate Estate!  Oh, and a colourful mural remembering the ‘People of Southwark’ now displaced from the area.

Folkestone is gentrifying - fast.  Artists and the town’s cultural quarter often cited as a major driver (Bennett, 2011; Batty, 2016a; Hanson, 2016).  People are moving to places such as Margate and Folkestone to escape London’s gentrification-fuelled housing crisis.  Folkestone Triennial founder Roger De Haan, the wealthy ex-owner of Saga Holidays, has not only leased almost one hundred properties to cultural organisations and spent more than sixty million pounds on the town’s cultural quarter, but is also planning to build a luxury harbour complete with an expensive new property development.  This is art festival as ‘cultural branding’, concealing ‘what is basically a speculative property development aimed at elite consumers’ (Batty, 2016b).  Folkestone is gentrifying and, looking at the architect’s CGI images, very white!

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Third, ‘local authority-led artwashing’.  The realm of ‘old’ and ‘new’ public art.

In 2010, Southwark Council commissioned this film featuring many local arts and cultural organisations.  Its imagery is shocking.  Scene after scene painting over the Heygate Estate, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, on and on…

Artangel were commissioned to produce an intervention on the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate.  In turn, they commissioned artist Mike Nelson to produce the Heygate ‘pyramid’, constructed by the selective demolition of one of the decanted ex-council housing blocks!  Anti-gentrification collective Southwark Notes led the campaign against the public artwork.  The campaign was successful and the project was dropped.

Artist Marcus Coates was also commissioned to ‘respond’ to the demolition of the Heygate.  He had a vision!  His vision.  His ritual.  A film which functions as an advertisement for the property developers. Local anti-gentrification activists defaced the posters.

Park Fiction, Hamburg.  The St. Pauli area of Hamburg has undergone sustained gentrification, turning a decaying, edgy, once working-class, industrial area into an increasingly middle-class one.  Artists appeared to be at the forefront of the struggle against gentrification.  Park Fiction - emblematic of socially engaged art as enabler of grassroots collective urban planning.  This accolade appears debatable, however, because Park Fiction was part of Hamburg city government’s broader regeneration agenda – an agenda that, like so many other cities around the world, fetishised art, culture and commerce.  It was, in fact, a testbed for a softer form of state-backed cultural intervention that harnessed the social capital of activists in St. Pauli on behalf of the state, which sought to pacify anti-gentrification protestors.  City authorities also funded the construction of the park, giving €2.4 million to the project.  Park Fiction is now a popular location: ‘a colourful setting of subcultural chic within the on-going gentrification of St. Pauli’ surrounded by middle-class food places.  The park has increased property values, ‘inadvertently supporting’ the very ‘profit-orientated, socially irresponsible redevelopment’ that the activists claimed to oppose (2014, pp. 43-44). Art changed a demand for a park into a Park Fiction, transforming the right to public space into a brand inspired by the postmodern film Pulp Fiction (Czenki & Schäfer, 2001, p. 100).

The lead artist involved in Park Fiction also was a key figure in Hamburg’s Right to the City movement.  Its manifesto rejected gentrification.  It began: ‘We say: A city is not a brand.  A city is not a corporation.  A city is a community.’  However, the movement appeared to fight brand with counter-brand; marketing with anti-marketing.  They were repeating the narrative that artists are exploited: the ‘city’s unwilling puppets’; inadvertent victims of capitalism.  Yet, the squatters and artists were working to support to ongoing gentrification of the city; the contested buildings acting as a ‘beacon to the creative class’ (Oehmke, 2010).

Then, low and behold, the same artist went on to be commissioned by the local authorities to lead PlanBude.  A project to redevelop the Esso Houses in the Gängeviertel area that spurned the Not In Our Name movement!  Following the now familiar Hamburg formula of participatory planning and collaboration, the artist gathered more than 2,000 responses to the development plans.  But, in the end, the ex-social housing blocks will be redeveloped by a consortium of international architects.  Art masked a consultative process that pacified local people and tenants before delivering a public-private partnership.

Bristol-based Situations was commissioned to produce a series of projects in in Bjørvika, Oslo’s waterfront area and a contested site of redevelopment and regeneration.  FutureFarmers produced Flatbread Society which included crop planting and a mobile bread oven.  Situations claimed the project represented ‘a new approach to working with artists in sites of regeneration’ (Situations, 2013b).  But Situations was commissioned to provide the ‘curatorial vision for this major site of regeneration’ (Situations, 2016b).  The area is also known as Fjord City and is ‘Norway’s largest urban development project’ (Bjørvika Utvikling, 2016).  Oslo’s Fjord City regeneration area was funded by Norway’s oil economy and a ‘percent-for-art’ programme (Gardiner, 2015).  It is widely acknowledged example of a major state-led gentrification zone in which art, in typical Creative City mould, plays a crucial role (Huse, 2014; Andersen & Røe, 2016).

The fourth type of artwashing is ‘arts-led’.

V22: a company of companies with a not-for-profit strand, several profit-making entities and a head office holding company that sells art and shares and is based in the Isle of Man – a tax haven.  V22 take over disused spaces and are presently engaged in ‘saving’ public libraries from closure by turning them into arts-led libraries with studio spaces for artists.  V22 are also working in a new facility at the new Silvertown development in London.  They have also set up a new company for this venture.  But, V22 is ran by a businesswoman and board of businessmen with vast global portfolios of financial investments and holding companies whose other interests span property development, gold and diamond mining, and even uranium extraction.  Little wonder then that this artwashing company is registered in the Isle of Man!  Shipping containers... You couldn't make this stuff up!

The fifth and final form of artwashing is what I call ‘community artwashing’ – perhaps the most pernicious, deceitful form of artwashing.

Sticking Together SE17 is a project commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to examine the ‘civic role of the arts’.  The artists said they wanted to ‘harvest’ the stories of people living in social housing on the Aylesbury estate.  But, of course, Sticking Together SE17 did nothing to protest about ongoing social cleansing of residents and produced a series of happy collages that failed to discuss the issues affecting the estate at all.

The People’s Bureau were commissioned by a range of supporters from Tate Modern to the local council to the previous and current developers of Elephant and Castle shopping centre.  The artists involved designated it as an ‘opportunity area’.  The artists’ ‘fun’ approach and pink market trolley was, of course, featured in the tax-evading property developer's marketing literature as an example of their community investment and consultation.  For good measure and, no doubt, art world validation, the artists took their project to the new Tate Modern extension earlier this year.

Homebaked is an art project-cum-community bakery in the heart of Anfield, Liverpool.  It claims to be community-led.  Its intention is to rebuild the local community ‘brick by brick and loaf by loaf’.  Jeanne van Heeswijk was commissioned to lead the Liverpool Biennial-funded Homebaked project in Anfield, Liverpool.  She is a regular on the global biennial circuit; an important socially engaged artist (Creative Time, 2016).  As a Community Land Trust, Homebaked’s mission is to provide ‘affordable homes for local people whose needs have not been addressed by conventional development’ (2Up2Down, 2016b).

However, claims that this project was instigated by local people seem to underplay the role of the Liverpool Biennial, ACE, Liverpool Council, URBED and other supporters.  Homebaked talk of ‘skills sharing’, ‘capacity building’, ‘CLT strategies’, ‘development’, ‘redevelopment’, ‘regeneration’, ‘affordable housing’, ‘mediators’.  They claim to want to avoid becoming ‘agents of gentrification’.  But Anfield is gentrifying.  Homebaked’s awareness of its potential role in gentrification, together with its art world origins and links to Liverpool Football Club, suggest an intentional strategic use of ‘socially engaged art’ as a means of ‘selling’ communities to possible property developers.  Homebaked is perhaps the first example of what could be termed, ‘piewash’!  They even cashed in on the recent general election with #PiesForCorbyn!

Turner Prize-winning Assemble.  The story goes that Granby 4 Streets CLT happened upon a crazy not-artist/ not-architect collective and began collaborating with them to do up ten houses in Toxteth, Liverpool which, against all understanding and expectations, somehow won the 2015 Turner Prize.  That’s the story.  Yet the reality is very different.  Posh group of mainly ex-Cambridge graduates, Assemble, were commissioned by the Community Land Trust which has a board of senior arts figures and financial investors.  They were paid to do the work; to produce designs.

Assemble were not unknown either.  Assemble have been commissioned by local councils and other institutions since 2010: the Glasgow Commonwealth Games; RIBA; Create London; arts institutions in the USA; Goldsmiths new art gallery…

Yet the idea that the Turner Prize-winning regeneration project was led by a committed group of community members who had remained in Granby even after the devastation of New Labour’s Pathfinder programme, is unfortunately false.  Funding was provided by a secret private investor from Jersey.  Steinbeck Studio paid Assemble and gave a £500,000 loan to Granby 4 Streets CLT to ‘lever’ massive funds from Arts Council England and others to enable their 10 houses in the neighbourhood to be refurbished.  To enable them to win the Turner Prize.  And people from around the world now flock there.  The ‘art project’ is nothing more than a massive advertising board.  A For Sale sign. 

And who’s on the board of Granby 4 Streets CLT, Steinbeck Studio, Homebaked and many more art projects involved in the regeneration of Liverpool and the North West?  The same person…  The same ‘arty’ people.  Like so many places around the globe, THEY are the artwashing mafia!

Balfron Social Club is a collective. Residents and artists who resist the social cleansing of iconic Balfron Tower and call out artwashing. They demand 50% social housing in all regeneration projects.  For BSC founding member, artist Rab Harling, who was a tenant in Balfron Tower, "art no longer equals freedom of expression, but forced oppression, a violent assault on working class communities by a class of educated and privileged people who choose, in the most part, to turn a blind eye to what is going on, at least until it directly affects them" (2017).  He maintains that Bow Arts Trust not only used artists to act as live/work tenants in place of decanted Balfron residents but that they colluded with housing association Poplar HARCA to artwash the social cleansing of the tower.  When Harling called them out, challenged them, Bow Arts evicted him.

"Organisations who abuse and exploit artists, that force artists to contribute to processes of artwash on behalf of property developers; that use artists to artwash the social cleansing of social housing need to be exposed. It is time that funding models serve communities and artists, and not just the needs of an arts organisations and their PR machine" (Harling, 2017).  Socially engaged artists were, for Balfron Social Club, becoming the scourge of our most vulnerable communities: The "shock troops of gentrification" (Harling, 2017).

Indeed, socially engaged art has become a form of community-consultation-by-art that identifies, gathers, sanitises, archives and exploits the social capital of local people.  It operates on the principle of trust.  Socially engaged artists are specialists in gaining the trust of community members; more likely to be trusted than business consultants.

A monopoly. Community artwashing exploits working-class people’s hopes and dreams.  It ‘harnesses’ them, hope by hope and dream by dream and turns them into saleable, commodified art.

And, like the state-induced notions of “the civic role” and wellbeing, social capital silently turns the benign into the terrible; interpersonal relationships and dynamics into global statistics and generic standards; people reduced to little contributions to the financial bottom line.

Artwashing isn’t about corporate social responsibility or social capital…

Artwashing eats up the lives of those most in need…

Art in the service of gentrification destroys social capital.

Artists, arts organisations and, indeed, art, becomes a pawn in the transnational, multi-scalar world of neoliberalism; of global capitalism.  Artwashing exploits by deceit.  Artwashing exploits people’s trust.

Thank you.